Asian American Studies Explainer: What is "Yellowface"?

I was going through some of my teaching notes from last year and came across these introductory comments on the concept of Yellowface, which I presented to students in an Asian American Literature and Popular Culture course. The ideas in this post dovetail quite extensively with the "Indians on TV" episode of Aziz Ansari's "Masters of None." 

We might tend to think that the kinds of anti-Asian sentiments John Okada talks about in his early novel No-No Boy are artifacts of the past -- that anti-Asian sentiments and ideas have receded in American life since the days of the Asian Exclusion Act, “Yellow Peril,” and the Japanese internment during World War II.

But that’s clearly not true. As recently as the 1990s various forms of anti-Asian sentiment were pretty mainstream and widely accepted in political discourse. Robert G. Lee opens the first chapter of his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture with a discussion of the above cover of a 1997 issue of the mainstream conservative magazine National Review. Recognize Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton,and Al Gore? (The term “Manchurian Candidate” comes from a spy thriller from the Cold War: a man is brainwashed so that he’ll infiltrate the American government and perform actions in the interest of the Communists -- Chinese and Russians -- who secretly control him.)

Later Lee talks about the scandal that emerged in 1996 regarding campaign contributionsto the Democratic party from Asian American donors, and prints a disturbing (and to my eye, flagrantly racist) cartoon from the same year mocking the idea of voters with the last name “Huang”).  (As a side note, one of the key players in the 1996 campaign finance controversy was named John Huang. In that controversy, Asian American donors would give large donations to the Democratic party. But the corporations from which the funds were being drawn were dummy corporations created by the Chinese government…)

Yellowface is active in this cover cartoon. To put it quite simply, Yellowface is similar to blackface performance as a way of appropriating and mocking African American racial/cultural difference. Yellowface is a way of performing Asian difference for mainstream American audiences -- and Hollywood has a long tradition of this kind of performance, going back to the famous Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s and later, films like Sayonara. (More recently, M. Night Shyamalan was criticized for casting his live-action version of The Last Airbender with white actors when in the original Nickelodeon cartoon the characters clearly appeared to be Asian. Periodically, Caucasian actors continue to play Asian characters in yellowface, though generally in comedies: Christopher Walken played “Feng” in Balls of Fury; Rob Schneider played an Asian photographer in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and so on...)

Here’s an image from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, source of a Yellowface depiction of a Japanese man that many Asians continue to find galling (especially since this is a much-loved romantic film -- people have tended to overlook its racism):

Here’s a bit of Charlie Chan to give you a flavor of how it was done. This is from a 1940 film called Charlie Chan and the Wax Museum:

The actor playing Charlie Chan was Sidney Toler, who had no Asian ancestry.

But Yellowface can also be used in a more general sense to refer to the appropriating of Asian symbols or appearance -- along the lines of the cartoon above.

Yellowface marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental; it sharply defines the Oriental in a racial opposition to whiteness. Yellowface exaggerates ‘racial’ features that have been designated ‘Oriental,’ such as ‘slanted’ eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin color. Only the racialized Oriental is yellow; Asians are not. Asia is not a biological fact but a geographic designation. Asians come in the broadest range of skin color and hue. (Robert Lee, Orientals 2)

We should probably talk about the color “yellow.” For Lee, yellow is a shorthand for a racial concept of the Asian (Oriental) other. It’s not a term by which Asians themselves would have understood their commonalities. Europeans and Americans described Asians as “yellow” as a category other than “white” or “black.” But strictly speaking in terms of color palettes: white people are not “white,” black people are not black, and Asians are not in fact yellow. 

Over time, however, some ethno-racial groups that have been defined by others along these lines often come to accept the short-hand “color scheme” that’s been invented for them. Many African Americans embrace the term “black” or “black American” (and indeed, some prefer the term “black American” to “African American”). Many Asians do not have a problem with the color designation “yellow” -- and Asian American artists, writers, and performers often use the term when identifying their work as Asian (think of Jeff Yang’s satirical cartoon, the “Y-Men”).  And I know a fair number of South Asians who have come to embrace “brown” (though brown isn’t as specific as white, black, and yellow; many Latinos also identify as “brown”).

Because the organizing principle behind the idea of race is ‘common ancestry,’ it is concerned with the physical, the biological, and the reproductive. But race is not a category of nature; it is an ideology through which unequal distributions of wealth and power are naturalized--justified in the language of biology and genealogy. Physiognomy is relevant to race only insofar as certain physical characteristics, such as skin color or hue, eye color or shape, shape of the nose, color or texture of the hair, over-or underbite, etc., are socially defined as markers of racial difference. (2)

What does Lee mean when he says that aspects of physiognomy that are traditionally associated with Asian appearance are only “socially defined as markers of racial difference”?

While traditional Yellowface has declined since the 1960s in mainstream Hollywood productions and on TV as more actual Asians are cast to play Asian characters, it’s still pretty widespread for actors to be asked to ‘play up’ their Asianness for Hollywood movies. Often Asian American actors who speak English with an American accent are asked to adopt an accent to sound more Asian. And it’s quite common for Asian American actors to play actual Asians (in Asia) -- one thinks, most recently, of Randall Park (the dad in Fresh off the Boat), who played Kim Jong Un in the recent film The Interview. Park is of Korean descent, but he was born and raised in Los Angeles… At times this kind of performance can be seen as benign (his character in Fresh off the Boat is appealing -- not a negative stereotype), but it’s still a source of concern and consternation for many aspiring Asian American performers. Some actors have staunchly refused to do any accented roles (Aziz Ansari comes to mind); others will put on the accent to get work.

In effect, there’s a comparison to the way black actors are often asked to play up their blackness for comedic effect. Some actors do this without thinking twice. But for others there’s something that feels wrong about using a voice that may not be their authentic speaking voice to entertain white audiences.